Bible manuscripts – Number of copies and time gap

Why do we have confidence that the New Testament was accurately transmitted?

Why do we have confidence that the Old Testament was accurately transmitted?

The original New Testament text can be verified from a large number of manuscripts.

The bibliographical test determines whether the copies we have are the same as the original. In the study of history, the closer a copy’s date is to the original, and the greater the number of copies we have, the more confident we are that it is the same as the original. Let’s examine briefly how we derive what we call history. In our schools, we are told of historical events that happened thousands of years ago and never learn to doubt them. How do people of this age know that those events actually occur?

We are informed of the past events because they have been recorded down in one way or another and handed down to us. Many of such historical events, like the New Testament ones, are written on papyrus which was made from plants. Since these materials were made from plants, they could not last long before decomposing. It is for this reason that it is important to have a large number of rewritten copies so that we know that what we have today are similar to what was originally recorded. In the extreme case whether we have only one existing rewritten copy and no originals, how can we be sure that this copy is similar to the original? There is no way to check!

In this regard, the New Testament, as a source of history, stands out from all others. The New Testament is the number 1 manuscript authority in the world. There are more than 24,000 manuscripts of the New Testament alone. This is even more significant when one realizes that in all of history, the second book in terms of manuscript authority, “The Illiad” by Homer, has only 643 surviving manuscripts. We all believe as a historical fact that Julius Caesar fought the Gallic War. The original writings are not available and we only have 10 surviving copies of the original. We can see that the evidence for the New Testament is so much greater than the writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning.

We can also reconstruct the original Old Testament with a high degree of confidence.

The oldest copies of the Old Testament, called the Dead Sea Scrolls, were discovered in 1947 in the caves of Qumran.

The scrolls can be dated paleographically (by studying the manuscripts) from the mid-3d century b.c.e. to the third quarter of the 1st century c.e. (Anchor Bible Dictionary).

The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrated that what we have today has been an accurate reflection of the original Old Testament. This is because the Dead Sea Scrolls were almost identical with the complete Old Testament manuscripts of a much later date, except for minor variants as in any document which depends on hand copies for multiplication.

The Time Gap Between The New Testament Events And Their Record Is Very Close

Another principle historians use to determine whether a record is authentic is to determine how long after was the fact recorded after it has occurred. Generally, the shorter the interval between the event and the time of writing, the more likely an account is true. For example, an account’s accuracy is doubtful if it was written 1,000 years after the event. How can we be sure that the writer has written accurately since he may not even be at the incident? Furthermore, what he wrote couldn’t be refuted by people who read it because the readers were also not at the scene of the incident.

We can also trust in the reliability of New Testament because they were circulated only shortly after the death of Jesus. There is strong evidence that the gospels were written within only 30 years after His death. Therefore the writers cannot afford to fabricate their reports since the readers can easily refute them if they were inaccurate. Since the interval is so short, there is also insufficient time for legends and myths tend to form around an event because this would take hundreds of years.

Recent archaeological discoveries of early papyrus manuscripts (eg John Ryland manuscript AD 130, Chester Beatty Papyri AD 155 and Bodmer Papyri II AD 200) has put the gap between the time of Christ and the manuscripts to only 100 to 200 years, much closer than most historical documents.

Gospel writers could not have written falsehood (or what they have written could not have been corrupted) because false accounts would have been easily refuted.

The New Testament accounts were tested by being circulated during the lifetimes of those alive at the resurrection. This means that the readers could contradict their testimony if they were not accurate. For instance, if we all witness a murder and a week later the police report turns out to be full of lies, we as witnesses can refute it. Likewise, we know the New Testament account is true because it has been “tested” by being circulated during the time of the contemporaries of Jesus. Furthermore, the accounts were circulated during the lifetime of those who were extremely hostile to Jesus. (They crucified him, remember?) Would these people have allowed false statements to pass as facts concerning events which they themselves were witnesses to?

In 1 Corinthians 15:3­8, when Paul talks about the resurrection of Jesus, he appeals to the audience’s knowledge of the fact that Christ had been seen by more than 500 people at one time after his death. Paul reminds them that the majority of these people were still alive (vs.6) and could be questioned. Paul was in effect saying, “If you don’t believe me, you can ask them.”

In Acts 2:22, Peter said , “Men of Israel, listen to these words : Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God perform through him in your midst, just as you yourselves know.”